Written by Ricardo D. LaGrange, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Unlike any other U.S. presidential election season that I can recall in my lifetime, the stakes appear particularly high this time around. I’ve been consumed by the campaign coverage and can’t seem to look away, even as that car-wreck feeling starts to settle in the pit of my stomach. One of the few things that pundits from both sides of the aisle can agree on is that voter turnout will play a major role in deciding the next President and the shape of Congress. Using my behavioral change instincts, I began wondering about voter risk behavior choices in politics. Is there a social marketing precedent that relates to our political preferences and voting behavior?
Researchers in marketing and consumer behavior have suggested that the voter can indeed be analyzed as a consumer in the political marketplace. The most important factors in voting behavior among political scientists typically center on sociological environment (e.g., family, friends, religion), party identification, and rational expectations. However, marketing researchers have framed voting behavior by directing more attention to the impact of party, policy issues, and candidate characteristics. While there has been a trend toward the voter who is rational and concerned with issues since the 1940’s, there is no doubt that the digital age in which we currently live, causes voters to pay closer attention to the candidates’ personality and performance as they are perceived over traditional and new media channels.
In this manner, a closer look at the marketing mix may provide us with a better understanding of what brings voters to the polls. Product, the first and perhaps most important of the “4 Ps”, is the candidate itself. Do we think that this person is “Presidential”? Is s/he fit for office? Do they have the temperament to lead unencumbered by personal biases? Our perceptions of the Product are most certainly shaped by savvy campaign communication directors, but newspapers, television and social media play an increasingly influential role in driving a narrative as well.
Price, the second “P”, is the cost associated with the effort or time people spend to vote for a particular candidate. What can be gained or lost by voting for our candidate of choice? Do we favor (or oppose) that candidate enough to bare the nonmonetary cost of voting? Will our single vote even matter? Here, rationality may succumb to more emotional appeals since we know that it is much more likely that we suffer a fatal car crash on the way to voting than cast the deciding ballot in a presidential election.
Our third “P”, Place, refers to where and when voters will vote. Voter turnout for the 2012 presidential election only reached 55% of the American electorate and has remained below 60% for almost all of the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, the U.S. ranks 31st in voter turnout among the 34 OECD countries, most of whose members are highly developed, democratic nations.1 Perhaps the strategies that some states have successfully employed to overcome barriers to voter access, like Oregon that only uses mail-in ballots or Minnesota that allows same day registration, offer viable solutions.
The last “P”, or Promotion, speaks to the persuasive communications that are designed and delivered to inspire a political candidate’s constituency. They say in Hollywood PR circles that there is no such thing as bad publicity and, unfortunately, the same may be true in politics. The 2016 Presidential election has seen divisive, inflammatory rhetoric get as much (if not more) attention as policy-influenced debate.
Will a combination of the “4 P’s” inspire the electorate and drive out the voters? Or will they become even more disillusioned and forego their right to choose the country’s next elected officials? Will our attention continue to be drawn to the accident we’ve witnessed on the side of the road? Or can we ultimately find a way to influence voters’ behaviors that will benefit the individual and society? The time may have arrived for leaders to look towards social marketing for gaining a keener insight into the behavior of voters.